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For Many, Floods A Fresh Opportunity To Ask Why Kremlin Can't Protect Its Citizens

  • Mumin Shakirov
  • Daisy Sindelar

KRYMSK, Russia -- Under a beating sun, a man with sorrowful eyes pauses for a drink of water as he uses a shovel to dig a grave for his son.

His son was one of more than 170 people killed in a nighttime flood that raced through this southern Russian city and others like it on July 6-7 with no warning or time for escape.

Now, with the grim process of burials under way, the father says authorities have provided no compensation or assistance in laying his 33-year-old son to rest.

"We were sitting together on top of a cabinet, with the water up to our waists. [Later] I called the Emergency Situations Ministry -- they had people out in boats -- and said: 'Guys, help me. I have a body. Help me at least set it on a sofa.'" he says. "But they said, 'That's not our job.' And that's it."

It's a seemingly familiar story in Russia, where large-scale humanitarian disasters are frequent and where the Kremlin's response is routinely condemned as both callous and inadequate.

Official Recriminations

The latest tragedy has prompted a round of official finger-pointing and blame, with President Vladimir Putin demanding explanations from the region's governor, Aleksandr Tkachev, who in turn has fired both the mayor and the top district official in Krymsk.

But it has resulted in few explanations for the fatal lack of warning or what, if any, role an aging reservoir may have played in the sudden rush of water.

Friends and relatives of a flood victim mourn in a cemetery in Krymsk in the southern Krasnodar territory on July 9.

Friends and relatives of a flood victim mourn in a cemetery in Krymsk in the southern Krasnodar territory on July 9.

Galina Tashmatova is the chief editor of the regional edition of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper in Kuban. She says many residents remain convinced that officials knowingly released reservoir water to divert the flood away from larger and more important cities.

But even if the authorities are absolved of any wrongdoing, she says it will be too little, too late for most residents, who have already given up hope that their government is working for them.

"The worst thing is that, because of the Krymsk tragedy, citizens don't trust their government. It's actually frightening," Tashmatova says. "Our governor has allowed himself to manipulate public opinion too many times, to put it mildly."

'It Doesn't Matter If People Die'

The flood cleanup coincides with the July 10 anniversary of another tragedy -- the death of more than 120 people in the sinking of the "Bulgaria," a ramshackle river cruise ship, in the Volga River near Kazan in 2011.

The "Bulgaria" catastrophe followed 2010's summer of massive forest fires and the death of some 100 workers in a methane explosion at the Raspadskaya coal mine.

A year earlier, an explosion at the country's massive Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric dam caused a massive power blackout and left at least 74 people dead.

WATCH: After the devastating floods, residents of the southern Russian city of Krymsk have begun receiving aid packages sent from other parts of the country.

Each of the incidents prompted cries of outrage from an increasingly vocal and mobilized public about government negligence. But none is seen as leading to improvements in safety standards or a more compassionate Kremlin response.

Masha Gessen, a Moscow-based journalist and the author of a Putin biography, notes that Krymsk has been subject to repeated incidents of deadly floods, including one as recently as 2002.

But she says the Russian government is unlikely to make a priority of disaster prevention as long as it sees no political cost in the loss of human life.

"The last large-scale flood in the region was 10 years ago. And it was clear at that point what the potential for damage was. So they would have had to plan ahead and put in physical protective measures and also create an alert system," Gessen says.

"But all of that requires long-term thinking, which this regime is completely incapable of. It's not accountable. It's not elected, it doesn't answer to anybody. So it doesn't matter if people die."

Andrei Shary of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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